Zia’s unfinished business

My latest for Express Tribune

The ghost of General Ziaul Haq and his drive to turn Pakistan into a theocracy continues to haunt us. Under immense pressure from the courts and clerics, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is seemingly undertaking a purge of politicians who may not be righteous under Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution.

These articles emanated from the desire to create an Islamic legislature where only the sagacious, righteous and non-profligate, honest and ameen could hold public offices. How can we define these vague terms, which are open to interpretation and abuse?

Articles 62 and 63 also suggest disqualification if a candidate is deemed to be against the ideology of Pakistan. Sadly, that very term was coined under the influence of Jamaat e Islami and General Yahya Khan’s comrade Gen Sher Ali contributed to its adoption for cynical reasons. History is a witness to Gen Yahya’s own conduct and the utter disdain he had for his Bengali subjects. The genesis of this term therefore is self-serving and purely hypocritical. Soon, the same junta trumpeting the ideology of Pakistan led an army action against Pakistanis and the events of 1971 remain a blot on our collective conscience.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto also caved to the pressure of the religious right, first by declaring Ahmadis as non-Muslims and later by introducing pseudo-Islamisation steps such as the banning of alcohol at the end of his tenure. But it was Gen Zia who truly wanted to undertake social re-engineering. Ideology of Pakistan became a plank of his policy of controlling dissent and reshaping Pakistani society.

Since then, the Ideology of Pakistan has been inserted into all key clauses of the Constitution as well as into the oaths of the high functionaries of the state and government. More and more opportunities for witch-hunts of politicians have thus opened up.

Perhaps the most bizarre development in recent days has been the use of Articles 62 and 63 to determine the religiosity of candidates. Exploitation of clauses (d) and (e) is tantamount to using religion as a means to reject nomination papers. Candidates have been asked to recite verses from the Quran in order to prove eligibility. In an ironic instance, reportedly, a JI candidate could not fulfil the eligibility test. Additionally, the Returning Officers have no strict guidelines within which to exercise the clauses, leading to potential variations.

In the foreground, the Supreme Court backs such purges by stating time and again that implementation of Articles 62 and 63 is mandatory. Concurrently, the fake degree cases are also endangering the prospects of hundreds of candidates who reportedly earned fake degrees to fulfil the condition of graduation imposed by Gen Musharraf during his tenure.

While their conduct is unbecoming, there is a wider question of if such tests have been applied on the civil-military bureaucracy and judges? Since 1950s, disqualification has been a game of the elected being fixed by the unelected. This time the media is aiding the process.

Some, like PTI chief Imran Khan, point to the failure of the outgoing parliament to remove these articles. This is an easy claim, as Mr Khan should know that governments operating under the pressure of the right-wing can seldom take such initiatives.

The real question here is who determines a person’s fitness for election. Is the decision in the hands of unelected officials or the people whom the Constitution empowers as the ultimate arbiters of the democratic system? The political parties would need to refine and improve the description of these clauses once the next Parliament takes oath. Otherwise they may invite more purges in the years to come.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 4th, 2013.

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